I’m a big fan of balls, as has been made clear in previous reviews. The ball-rolling genre is a favourite of mine, with the Super Monkey Ball series in particular being a highlight.
When Skully was revealed last year, it peaked my interest. A 3D platformer where you roll around a skull, like a ball, with various different power-ups to aid traversal. Sounds just like my type of game!
A 3D platforming adventure is certainly a departure from the normal structure of the genre, which usually focus on short challenging levels, but it could certainly work. I’m one of the few defenders of Super Monkey Ball Adventure, which I consider to have a solid premise, but heavily flawed execution.
Will Skully succeed at making a ball rolling platforming adventure work?
THIS COULD BE A CASE FOR TERRY & SKULLY
After being brought to life by a surfer-dude deity called Terry, you realise that the reason you were created is to settle the dispute between the siblings who are squabbling for control of the island. You’re left in the dark as to how you are to accomplish that as a mere rolling skull, but the stupidity of your creator implies that he probably has no idea either. Regardless, you set off on your journey trying to stop a quarrel that could spell disaster for the whole island. Whilst Terry comes across as being annoyingly idiotic at first, he later becomes more tolerable as you meet his siblings. All of them are unique, but they are all irritating and unlikeable. Which is all the more unfortunate as they all tend to talk a lot. Rather than caring about the rift between the siblings, the characters make you despise the lot of them.
After some initial storytelling cutscenes (assembled from a series of static images), you’re throw straight into the world. As you rise up from a pit of mud, you realise that it was a rather fitting opening to the game as it sets the scene perfectly: be prepared for a world of muddy textures reminiscent of the early Xbox 360 days. The lack of detail is really unfortunate for the game as the poor textures make it difficult to distinguish a clear path forward at time, and also results in a lot of the levels looking quite similar. Later on, there’s even a level in a pitch black cave which is made all the more infuriating by the bland textures as you can hardly see anything. The accompanying soundtrack to the levels are suitable for the most part, if a little bland. It’s very rudimentary and generic platforming music that feels like something you’ve heard hundreds of times before.
MOVING AT THE SPEED OF SKULL
Mechanically speaking, controls are as straightforward as you would expect from the genre. The left stick controls movement, and you also have access to a jump. Outside of that, it’s possible to cling to grassy walls and transform into golems, which offer their own extra abilities. Golems are unlocked at various points in the game, but are just found in random mud puddles rather than as a result of any specific event. It’s never explained why they appear, even though Terry tries to take the credit for it, but they only really serve the purpose to add some variety to the game. Both Skully and the Golems are formed from mud, so contact with water or fire will result in you deteriorating pretty quickly. As such, you should avoid contact with these as much as possible.
Avoiding dangerous elements is definitely easier said than done. The enemies offer surprisingly little resistance; but the controls make avoiding things a huge hassle. Skully moves at a fast speed and has a really unwieldly jump that makes platforming across small objects a lot more frustrating than it should be. You never feel like you are in complete control of your character, so landing on small areas or across loops can end up feeling like a result of luck rather than skill. I feel like the developers were aware of the control issues too since checkpoints are literally everywhere, which mercifully prevent you from wanting to fling the controller across the room. Controls are the most important part of a ball rolling game, so it’s a shame that Skully fails so spectacularly in this regard.
Issues with the momentum and physics are exacerbated by poor performance. The game chugs along with frequent noticeable framerate drops, which also doesn’t help when trying to nail precise jumps. Considering how the game looks, the performance is unforgiveable. Usually ball rollers aim for a solid 60FPS, but this can’t even hit 30FPS … or even just a consistent framerate. To make matters worse, some of the more demanding areas also tend to have the most annoying platforming too. One such sequence partway through the game has you being chased by waves. To achieve a cool cinematic effect, the camera is locked in a low position just behind the oncoming waves. It feels exciting until you realise that the tight platforming has suddenly got a lot more obnoxious now you can’t actually see where you’re going. It’s bad design requiring trial and error to brute force your way through the checkpoints. I also encountered four hard crashes over my five hour playthrough, which were even more annoying due to the time taken to reboot the game from scratch. It’s amazing how badly optimised the game is on the Switch, considering it looks like something from the sixth generation of gaming.
The game isn’t all rolling around though: as aforementioned, you can also acquire different golem forms during your adventure. Golems fare much better controls-wise as they’re slower and jump a little more reliably compared to the default skull. Each form has different abilities, from smashing walls to double jumps. It’s an interesting change of pace, but they tend to be quite situational. As you summon them from mud puddle checkpoints, you will usually just encounter an obstacle of some kind, summon the appropriate golem to help you bypass it, and then you’ll roll on your way again. Considering the linearity of such levels, there’s no exploration or anything using these forms: only minor roadblocks. Some of the golems too can be used in unintentional ways. One golem can move platforms around to create a path, but you only really need two in order to cross any gap as you can simply move those two to make a path forward; what’s worse is that the double jumping golem can essentially climb up unintended surfaces, allowing you to bypass huge chunks of the level. Whilst this is technically a negative, breaking the levels proved to be the most entertaining part of the game.
And that’s the main issue with Skully. It’s just not very fun. Bad controls and bland level design are frustrating enough to make you feel constantly irritated, with the frequent checkpoints preventing things from being too annoying. Whilst I wouldn’t go as far as to say the game is terrible, I will say that it’s worse than that: it’s boring. A below average platformer that looks and plays like a relic from 15 years ago, yet wants to charge you €34.99 for a mere five hours of mediocrity. I’ve definitely played worse this year, but I’ve definitely played a better – and that includes Agony (which I’ll be reviewing next time!). Save your money and buy any other ball roller.